Sunday Services

Restless Souls
February 20, 2011 - 4:00pm
Rev. Rebecca Benefiel Bijur, speaker

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"Restless Souls"

By the Rev. Rebecca Benefiel Bijur
Unitarian Universalist Community Church
Santa Monica, California
February 20, 2011


Up on the docks in Oakland, steel containers piled higher than small buildings, travelers across distant seas, seemed only inches from the slate blue waves; on the coast in Orange County, waiters from a beach bar piled sandbags by the doors. Thursday morning brought the highest tides of the year to coastal California, king tides, pulled onto our beaches by the powerful alignment of the gravitational forces of the sun, the earth, and the full moon.

For land-dwelling creatures like you and me, the power of that restless sea can be both awesome and frightening. In poetry and prose, story and song, the salt and brine of the ocean leaves its mark on the human imagination. When I was in middle school, I brought home a poster from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History that showed the Earth as it would have looked about 2,500 million years ago, in the beginning age, the Archean Age. Fossil evidence from this time indicates the presence of our earliest ancestors in life, prokaryotic cells and cyanobacteria, but no eukaryotes. In the poster landscape, volcanoes bubble smoke and lava, and water cascades from the sea into rocky pools- the boiling cauldrons of life. The air is vital with possibility, with beginnings, with something that is about to happen. About to happen in a general sense, of course – this was 2,500 million years ago, after all.

This is where we are from, I think. We in the most general sense, all living beings. In this warm sea lie our earliest beginnings. We come from the water, living in the water, go back to the water, turn the world around, sings that modern singer and sage, Harry Belafonte. The elemental magic of the sea puts a claim on us, and not only because the life sciences trace our lineage to those bubbling pools.

The spirit of the sea calls to us, too. Its restlessness, its boundless vastness, the way it swallows that life-giving sun at the edge of the horizon, every day, without fail.  Yet as vast and powerful as it is, the ocean has its limits. On Thursday it mounted its twice-yearly high tide invasion, but this is always followed by an eventual tidal retreat, just as complete. Absence and abundance, celebration and grief, come at us in waves, and we understand our own lives in the tidal flow of these metaphors, in the push and pull of this most elemental oceanic contradiction: the juxtaposition of boundless possibility, alongside the reality of inescapable limitation.

This is a question for the poets and sages, and the theologians, those making meaning from both theos (God) and logos (words), chime in as well. My colleague Rebecca Parker, president of our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California, has just published a new work of liberal theology co-written with John Buehrens, a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. She frames this ultimate question, the question of how to balance possibility and limitation, as one of eschatology, from the Greek eschatos, final, and logos, words, the words of end-times, the words that lend finality and purpose to our lifework.  Most of us are probably familiar with apocalyptic eschatologies, words for end times that call for a final judgment and a great battle, when the saved and the damned will be separated; if we haven’t read the theological texts that speak of such a time, then we’ve probably seen the Hollywood version of such a final disaster, as the lava flows down Wilshire Avenue, the asteroid hits, or the Statue of Liberty falls into the sea.

In contrast to the final judgment, Rebecca Parker reminds us of the existence of progressive eschatologies, ways of viewing the ultimate ends of human life with hope and optimism about the shared future of all living beings.

Progressive eschatologies, she writes, come in three major forms, all focused on the earthly goals of life rather than a heavenly afterlife. She summarizes and critiques them in this way:

Number one: A Social Gospel eschatology: We are here to build the kingdom of God on earth.
Number two: A Universalist eschatology: God intends all souls to be saved.
And number three: a radically realized eschatology, which charts a middle path between the Social Gospel and the Universalists by saying, Paradise is here and now.

Each of these visions of the purposes of religious life has both inspired and wearied those who have staked their lives on it. Voices of justice raised up by the Social Gospel have sung the songs at the heart of movements of peace, dignity, and equality for the last century; our Universalist ancestors brought the warmth of their love to save souls from the fear of punishing deity who demanded obedience and threatened judgment.

Parker’s critique of such restless souls – whose yearning that has done so much to challenge and change the world for the better – is that the heavy work of loving of all souls and the endless quest for justice carry too “idealistic [a] belief in progress” that is ultimately “too fragile a foundation for sustained social activism.”

If we are here to build the kingdom of God on earth, every day we spend distant from that dream is one that crushes our spirits with the reality of our limitations. If we are here to love and save all souls, every soldier and civilian lost to the war machine, every moment ill spent in fear and conflict, raises the tide of failure so there is little we can do but doggy paddle for our own survival.

A belief in progress alone can be too fragile a foundation for final things, for what this world requires of us, and us of one another.

Rebecca Parker proposes instead, that the inheritors of liberal religious thought consider “radically realized eschatology,” and build a house for hope on the foundational affirmation that “we are already standing on holy ground.” She writes,

This earth—and none other—is a garden of beauty, a place of life. Neglecting it for some other imagined better place will be a self-fulfilling prophecy—it will make earth a wasteland. There is no land promised to any of us other than the land already given, the world already here.

Rather than diminishing our yearning for justice, equality, dignity, reconciliation, and repair, Parker suggests that reorienting ourselves to this world, this Paradise, can inspire in us what she calls a responsive hope, a hope that is born out of our love of this world, rather than our idealization of some other world. In a phrase that must carry heavy weight in this corner of the world, this humming winter garden of blooming hibiscus and roses, squawking jays, as we look from the ocean over the canyon and into the verdant hills, in this phrase she writes, Paradise is here and now.

Our first prayer, she writes, can be one of thanks. Instead of striving to get somewhere else, our goal can be to fully arrive here and greet each day of life with gratitude, expressing hospitality for the mysterious goodness that is new every morning and engaging in compassionate care for the present realities of suffering, injury, and injustice that call for our active response.

The simplicity of her words of endtimes resonate with me, as I call to mind the stories of our New England ancestors like that we shared in our time for all ages, about a bear named Henry who stops for blackberries on the way to Fitchburg. The end goal of the friends’ striving is to meet one another in a distant town, but they get there in different ways. Henry’s friend works for the money he need to ride the train – a train I used to ride, along a route I know very well, that goes from Boston to Cambridge to Concord to Fitchburg. His friend works hard, but he also works in the gardens, libraries, and studies of the luminaries of the Transcendentalist age: Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Henry, a stand in for Henry David Thoreau, has the more whimsical journey across rivers and open fields, stone walls and country lanes, and I suppose the author has a clear preference for this open-hearted walk. But the contrast is not so stark for me, save for the moment when it is revealed that the 30 mile walk did take longer than the train –but only because Henry stopped for blackberries.

Stopping for blackberries is a way of recognizing the paradise of the here and now. Stopping to share blackberries with our friends is a way of reorienting our solitary, mystical experiences into building relational communities of hope, solidarity, and resistance.

In writing of the ends of things, Parker does not neglect the means by which we will arrive at these end times – the relationships and love that make the ride worthwhile. In his wide-ranging poem “Fern Hill,” the poet Dylan Thomas brings a country morning that Henry would have recognized to vital life, his narrator is young and easy under the apple boughs, he is green and golden.

And the poet writes of this paradise,

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
     Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
       And playing, lovely and watery
         And fire green as grass.
       And nightly under the simple stars
     As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
     All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
       Flying with the ricks, and the horses
         Flashing into the dark.

     And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
     With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
       Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
         The sky gathered again
       And the sun grew round that very day.
     So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
     In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
       Out of the whinnying green stable
         On to the fields of praise.

What a wonder, he sings, it is to be alive, in this paradise that is right here, right now. What a wonder, in a world stark with life and death, with abundance and loss. And in the final verse of this love poem to life, the poet writes,

Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

This is how we will come to terms with possibility and limitation; the hopes we have for this world and how they have not yet been fully realized; how love, like the sun, must be born over and over, as the poet writes, how we are bound together in this task.

That binding, writes scholar and minister Forrest Church, is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die…Love’s power [which we sang about a moment ago], he writes, comes in part from having the courage required to give ourselves to that which is not ours to keep: our spouses, children, parents, dear and cherished friends, even life itself.

The majesty of the waves, so apparent on the shore, reach no further than the beach. The love we give, the care we receive, is not ours to keep. The ocean’s caged majesty inspires us, and the poet Dylan Thomas writes, I sang in my chains, like the sea.

Last week, at the close of our wonderful celebration, an older gentleman found his way into the pews. One of our former head ushers came and found me in the reception and asked that I look in on him, as he seemed not quite himself, upset. After a few minutes of resting in our sanctuary, we got to talking, and he explained that he’d driven all night from Texas, or maybe Florida, to stay with his granddaughter here in Santa Monica. He and his wife used to attend this church, he said, and he needed back surgery, and he was tired, and he needed to be somewhere good. He said, I’m not looking for money… I just needed to come back here. You see, the residue of the love he received here years ago was still sticky in his mind. When he saw those open doors he just walked right in and sat down to rest. Today and tomorrow and in 15 years I hope you all will still know that when you are lost, tired, in pain and soul-sick, you can lay your burdens down here.

This song is by no coincidence our final hymn. It speaks to me of some of the most fundamental contradictions of our restless, yearning faith, and our responsive hopes for healing, reconciliation, sanctuary in this dear old world.

Lay your burdens down, we will sing, knowing the time of resting will be followed again by one of working.  I don’t talk like I used to, since I lay my burdens down, we will sing, knowing that radical change is possible for each of us, and yet grounded by our experiences of the ebb and flow of commitment in our own lives, by our own readiness to change. Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I lay my burdens down – the thanks and praise of trust we win when we know this community as one of safety, trust, and a responsive hope. We restless souls, inheritors of a wide and inspiring legacy, are bound to one another and this free faith, and we choose to channel our love, our courage, our hope, into an earthy paradise, here and now.

May it be so.

Copyright 2011, Rev. Rebecca Benefiel Bijur
This text is for personal use only, and may not be copied
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